Prove your humanity

A new report by Concerned Health Professionals of NY and Physicians for Social Responsibility concludes that fracking is a public health crisis. That’s not a surprise. It’s the 9th edition of the document called “The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking,” which collects articles from peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals, investigative reports by journalists, and reports from, or commissioned by, government agencies.

“Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which human health depends,” said the report authors.

Sandra Steingraber is a biologist, author, senior scientist with the Science and Environmental Health Network, and lead author of the report. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with her about it.

Listen to the interview:

Kara Holsopple: What are some of the findings about the health risks of fracking for children and pregnant people? 

Sandra Steingraber

Photo courtesy of the author

Sandra Steingraber: So we have more than 120 studies now in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that have looked for and found serious health effects of fracking. And we don’t have any studies that have looked for and not found them. And that’s really extraordinary. I just want to begin with that. And of all of that data, the stuff on pregnancy is the strongest and the most corroborated across various states. And a lot of it does come from Pennsylvania. 

So we know that pregnant women who live near fracking sites have a higher risk for various things. Sometimes the data show smaller babies. We know that when babies are born small, that usually means there’s a problem with the placenta delivering nutrients. Babies are also born prematurely to women who live near fracking and drilling operations.

And sometimes, they go on to have certain kinds of cancers. There’s a risk for leukemia. We’ve seen data from both Pennsylvania and Colorado on that, and now very strong data coming out of Pennsylvania showing that kids who live near fracking sites have 5 to 7 times the risk of lymphoma

Kara Holsopple: Seniors are also a population mentioned as at particular risk in areas with gas development. What is the study that stands out for you there?

Sandra Steingraber: We’ve got a couple of studies showing that seniors in Pennsylvania live less long. We can do this research because we’ve got Medicare databases, and we know where the drill sites are located. We see that older people tend to have more heart attacks and other chronic cardiovascular problems. If they do have heart failure, there are more hospitalizations for heart failure the closer you live to a fracking site. 

But one of the studies that just really caught my eye was one that treated Pennsylvania as a kind of experimental group and New York state, where we’ve banned fracking as the control group, knowing that the line between Pennsylvania and New York is just a line somebody drew across the map.

This study looked at Medicare rules and took a look at what was happening with people’s health between 2002 and 2015. Now, around 2008, fracking just came roaring into that part of Pennsylvania, and that didn’t happen in New York State.

There’s no difference in heart failure rates and other kinds of signs of health problems among older people prior to 2008. New York and Pennsylvania just chug along, completely in tandem with each other. But after fracking arrives, you see this big divergence where Pennsylvanians start to have more and more health problems, especially cardiovascular stuff. Whereas in New York State, we continue to have fewer heart issues.

You really do see a discrepancy between health outcomes based on whether or not fracking is permitted or prohibited in your community. And that is a kind of a stunning study because normally, it would be unethical behavior to do controlled experiments on people. But in this case, it really kind of struck me, that we’re running a kind of uncontrolled experiment — actually a controlled experiment if you’re using New York as the control group. But the people of Pennsylvania are the lab animals.

It has become, in my mind as a biologist, a moral issue. 

Kara Holsopple: This edition also includes information about the use of gas stoves in homes. What are the main concerns, and why include gas stoves in this compendium?

Sandra Steingraber: With every issue of the compendium, we try to build out a new chapter. We started by just looking at what was going on at the wellhead. And then we began to realize there are so many things going on downstream. There are the pipeline, the compressor stations and the flare stacks. There are gas-fired power plants and LNG terminals and things like that.

We should really build out chapters on the fracking infrastructure. So this year, we chose gas appliances inside people’s homes out of an awareness that our own indoor air space is the terminus of the fracking pipeline. 

We know a lot about what happens when you release methane or burn methane in outdoor air. We see workers who work on well pad sites have high levels of benzene in their urine, high enough to be linked to higher rates of leukemia.

We see people who live along pipelines and near compressor stations exposed to things like benzene and formaldehyde and nitrogen dioxide. We see that people who live in communities with gas-fired power plants have much higher rates of nitrogen dioxide than other communities.

Now, we can also say that we, as private citizens living in our own homes, are also like the workers, like the people who live along pipelines and compressor stations, exposed to the byproducts of fracking because we’re igniting that methane right in our kitchens and right in our basements. 

We see over and over again that if you have a gas stove in your home, you have levels of nitrogen dioxide that would be illegal to breathe if you were in the outside air and you have levels of benzene…inside your bedrooms.

When we take a look at the data, and we have actually really good data going all the way back to the 70s, we see over and over again that if you have a gas stove in your home, you have levels of nitrogen dioxide that would be illegal to breathe if you were in the outside air and you have levels of benzene, which is another air pollutant that comes from gas stoves, inside your bedrooms. That remains hours after you finally turn the stove off after you’re done cooking for the evening.

Nitrogen dioxide is a known cause of asthma. Nitrogen dioxide is actually created when you burn when the heat of burning methane ignites the air around the flame so that the nitrogen and the oxygen in the air actually are forced to combine. When you breathe that in, it’s not very water soluble, so your nasal passages can’t really protect you.

It goes all the way down into the spongy alveoli deep in your chest wall, where it turns into nitric acid. That causes inflammation. It causes wheezing and triggers asthma. About 13% of all childhood asthma cases can be attributed to the presence of a gas stove in the home. 

Kara Holsopple: How should this compendium be used? Or how do you want it to be used? 

Sandra Steingraber:  I don’t get asked that enough. On a personal note, I’m a Ph.D. biologist who had a sort of whole career writing books with my name authored on them, which I kind of threw aside to be able to work on this compendium.

It is kind of a nerdy project in a way because it just compiles all of the data that are otherwise locked away in the obscurity of the peer-reviewed scientific literature, brings it all together in one place, and then translates it into plain-spoken English. You don’t have to be an expert in geochemistry or forestry to be able to understand and read this.

Of everything I’ve done or written, this has probably been the document that I’m the most proud of because it’s had the most actual effects that I can say. This helped ban fracking in New York. It went on to help ban fracking in Scotland. It played a role in stopping an LNG terminal in Ireland, and it was read and acted upon in Mexico, South Africa and Argentina.

It’s a peer-reviewed, open-access compilation that’s fully searchable. If you live near a fracking site and you’re worried about air pollution, you can look that up. If you’re trying to swap out your gas stove and need to go make a presentation before your church group, you can look that part up.

None of this is copyrighted, so we just want people to use it to write to their elected officials, use it in their own public education campaigns, and make public comments. If a pipeline is going through your community, you can stand up and use all of the data from the pipeline chapter. It’s just there as a kind of big encyclopedia and a living document.

Sandra Steingraber is a biologist, author, senior scientist with the Science and Environmental Health Network, and lead author of “The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking.”

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